We Settled The Sundress Debate Once And For All (You're Welcome)

What actually defines a sundress? For many people, the answer would seem obvious: any dress you wear when the sun is out. However, after one TikTok video from Paige Taylor went viral in May 2024, many are starting to question everything they thought they knew about this summer fashion staple. That video, which has more than 3.5 million views at the time of writing, saw Taylor trying on different style dresses while asking their boyfriend which they thought could be classified as a sundress. The clip made it pretty clear there are a few of us who don't actually know the true definition, to the point that Taylor captioned the clip, "I think I'm even more confused." Yeah, us, too. That video followed an even more viral TikTok upload (with 6.5 million views!) from @laiithy, which saw her go through her closet and ask viewers to decide what a sundress is.


i think im even more confused

♬ original sound – Paige Taylor


what is a sundress??? the people want to know!!! #sundress #sundressseason

♬ dancing queen – rue-vivian 🌟

All this confusion is why we went to TV style expert Michelle Washington to find out if there's a true definition for a sundress in the fashion world. Because if there is, it seems to have gotten lost. Her answer? "A sundress is that breezy, lightweight dress that makes you feel like a goddess under the sun ... It's perfect for those summer days when the heat is unbearable, but you still want to look like a million bucks without breaking a sweat." So, essentially, to be a sundress, it needs to not be too heavy, offer movement, and be appropriate for a day in the sunshine. And, according to fashion fit expert Nikki Martin (aka The Billion Dollar Fit)'s TikTok advice, it should be sleeveless too!


Why are there so many different definitions?

So, why are there so many different takes on what a sundress is? Well, it's likely the result of so many differing climates and regional styles (across the world and in the U.S.) influencing fashion choices in the summer. 


"Fashion is all about context, and regions have their own flavor," says Michelle Washington, so what constitutes a typical sundress may differ from state to state. "Sundresses in the Northeast are often layered affairs. Think sundresses with a chic cardigan or denim jacket, ready to face a surprise chill. It's all about versatility and that urban edge," she explained. As for how that may differ on the West Coast, where sun tends to be an all-year affair, "Sundresses take on a boho, laid-back vibe," Washington shared. In the south, you're more likely to see something a little more vintage and classic looking. "The Southern belle sundress is sweet, sometimes with a hint of vintage," she shared.


There are also some differences in definition depending on a person's age or cultural upbringing. As industry expert Nikki Martin explained to Vox, "[The term has] taken on a new meaning in African American culture for a certain generation," she explained, noting that a lot of people have been considering more fitted dresses to be sundresses because the bodycon dress look was trendy for so long. It's also impossible to deny the cultural impact of celebrity fashion brands, like Kim Kardashian's SKIMS, on what the most popular dress styles are for any given generation. Scroll through the sundress season hashtag on Instagram or TikTok, and you'll encounter countless videos of people sporting dresses with built-in shapewear. The shift is indicative of how even seemingly timeless terms can evolve in response to trends. And it doesn't mean anyone is incorrect; it just means we all have a different way of looking at fashion. 

What makes a sundress a sundress?

Now let's be clear: There's no rule that says you can't call any dress you wear outside for the summer a sundress. However, to make your shopping experience easier, television fashion expert Michelle Washington tells us there are three main things to look out for when sundress scouting. The piece needs to be breathable, comfortable and breezy, and have a fun, summery pattern (think things like floral or tropical prints, though stripes or polka dots — a celebrity favorite pattern — can also be found on sundresses). Washington also gave us the lowdown on specific materials, because the ideal sundress should not have you feeling like a sweaty, melting popsicle in it. "We're talking lightweight fabrics like cotton, linen, and sometimes even a touch of silk if you're feeling fancy. These fabrics let your skin breathe and keep you cool," Washington explained, pointing towards fabrics that will help beat the heat in the summer. And it turns out there are a few colors to choose to properly embrace true sundress season vibes. Just think bright, summery colors or pastels.


Still, the one thing that seems to have the majority of us confused when it comes to sundresses, though is the length and fit. Is there such a thing as too short or too long? Well, according to Washington, "Think flowy and relaxed." She explained to us that anything from a mini to a maxi can technically still be a sundress. "A-line, fit-and-flare, or even a cute little shift dress can all be sundresses as long as they're giving you that effortless, breezy feel," she added.